As teams and players sustain success, it’s only natural that each of their new feats would seem a little less impressive than the last. The Patriots (8–2) being on the verge of winning 10 games for a 14th consecutive season feels like a drop in the bucket at this point. Drew Brees, who has 3,276 passing yards through Week 11, being poised to turn in another 5,000-yard campaign comes as a shock to no one — except that it would be his fifth such season, and only the ninth in NFL history. (No other quarterback has more than one.) Six receivers have averaged at least 110 yards per game while making at least 14 starts; Julio Jones (110.5) is on pace to do it for the second time.
The Seahawks’ current run falls into this line of thinking. Since the start of the 2012 campaign, head coach Pete Carroll’s team has won 53 games, third behind only Denver and New England. But even that figure doesn’t represent just how dominant Seattle has been. Russell Wilson and Co. have finished no. 1 in Football Outsiders’ DVOA in each of the past four seasons, and after knocking off Philadelphia — the top-ranked DVOA team entering Week 11 — they’ll likely assume that spot again this week. The Seahawks’ advanced-metric supremacy has been so thorough that wide receiver Doug Baldwin is quoting the numbers in postgame interviews, to the delight of statheads everywhere.
New England remains the NFL’s standard for staying power, and in a way Seattle has followed the Pats’ model. Finding the right quarterback–head coach pairing to form the foundation of a franchise matters above all else. The Patriots have built all kinds of teams on that rock-solid base — some early in Tom Brady’s career that won behind defense and ball control, others that leaned heavily on the run game come playoff time, and a few that featured the most lethal passing offenses ever — but no matter the makeup they were made possible because of the Brady–Bill Belichick tandem.
Wilson and Carroll have provided a similar fulcrum. And Wilson’s role, like Brady’s, has evolved since his rookie effort in 2012. When running back Marshawn Lynch was disassembling would-be tacklers and the Legion of Boom was rising to power, Wilson served as a complementary piece whose mobility as a zone-read quarterback was as important to Seattle’s approach as his passing talents. And Wilson, like Brady, has grown to become the focal point of a tweaked-and-terrifying offense.
During the final eight games of the 2015 regular season, when the Seahawks went to a more wide-open scheme and made Wilson the point guard of their pace-and-space attack, the QB passed for 2,146 yards with 25 touchdowns and two interceptions. That prompted many to predict that he was in line for an MVP-type season this fall. After a slow start to the season (mostly because of injury and protection issues), Wilson has spent the past three games reminding everyone why that buzz existed, culminating in Sunday’s 26–15 dismantling of the Eagles that moved Seattle’s record to 7–2–1.
In September it seemed as if the Seahawks’ struggles along the offensive line would be enough to torpedo both Wilson and the offense as a whole. He suffered a bad ankle sprain in a Week 1 win over Miami and a sprained knee in a Week 3 victory over San Francisco, leaving him hobbled and unable to work his typical magic under siege in the backfield. Wilson getting hurt and being unable to play the way that he was used to threatened Seattle’s entire season.
From the recent looks of it, though, those days are long gone. The Seahawks appeared to fix their offensive line woes against a hapless New England pass rush last week, but the Eagles presented a different type of obstacle. Boasting the league’s scariest front four, Philadelphia came into Week 11 with the second-best adjusted sack rate in football. The Eagles finished Sunday with just one sack and six quarterback hits, in part because of Seattle’s play design (a healthy dose of play-action and passes that involved Wilson either rolling or sprinting out), and in part because Wilson is an actual wizard.
Two of the Seahawks’ biggest plays on the day — a second-quarter touchdown toss to Jimmy Graham that involved the revitalized tight end shaking off two defenders and a 34-yard completion to Doug Baldwin on a third-and-11 in the third quarter — involved Wilson extending plays with his legs, keeping his eyes upfield, and somehow flicking his wrist and letting his open receivers do the rest.
Undrafted free agent George Fant has wrested Seattle’s starting left tackle job away from Bradley Sowell, and Fant has certainly provided an upgrade at the position. The most substantial improvement to the offense’s pass protection over the past few games, though, is attributable to Wilson himself; the quarterback has reemerged as someone who can escape constant pressure and be the centerpiece of a game plan that takes advantage of his dual-threat skill set, giving opposing pass rushers fits. Six weeks ago, offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell wouldn’t have asked Wilson to run an extended play-action fake, let alone a wheel route down the sideline.
This version of Wilson is Seattle’s best player — and turns the Seahawks into the league’s most dangerous team. In his past 16 regular-season games, Wilson has thrown for 4,360 yards with 32 touchdowns and three interceptions while completing 67 percent of his passes and averaging 8.3 yards per attempt. Brady has been shooting flames from his right arm since returning from his four-game suspension, and Cowboys rookie running back Ezekiel Elliott has been a revelation this fall. Both are worthy MVP candidates. Right now, though, no single player affects a game more than a healthy Wilson.
The Seahawks aren’t without their issues on offense. Their line still has problems, and losing C.J. Prosise — who ripped off a 72-yard score and looked untouchable against Philly before going down with a scapula injury in the second quarter that will keep him out “a while” — means that Seattle has little depth beyond Thomas Rawls at running back. But if that Wilson shows up every week, the combination of him, Graham, and Baldwin could be so much that the Seahawks’ other shortcomings don’t matter.
It’s also worth mentioning that Seattle’s defense is pretty good. The Seahawks may have ripped a page from the Patriots’ script when it comes to the Wilson-and-Carroll pairing, but what they’ve done defensively is an original screenplay. After allowing a league-best 17.3 points per game last season, Seattle became the first team in the Super Bowl era to lead the NFL in scoring defense four years in a row. Well, after giving up 15 points to the Eagles on Sunday, Seattle is on top again in 2016, at 17.3 points per game. Since the league expanded to a 16-game schedule in 1978, only one team — the Buccaneers, from 1999 to 2003 — has allowed 280 points or fewer (17.5 per game) in five straight seasons. The Seahawks are on track to become the second. In this era, that’s unthinkable.
Seattle will await the timetable on Earl Thomas’s (and to a lesser extent, DeShawn Shead’s) hamstring injury with bated breath, especially after getting to take in the majesty of a fully healthy secondary these past two weeks. The importance of Kam Chancellor, who missed four games with a groin injury before returning last week against New England, has been on display: His interception at the end of Sunday’s first half, on a play that involved Richard Sherman passing off a receiver to the middle of the field and Chancellor ducking underneath the route, was a thing of beauty. And while the Legion of Boom may have been fully assembled for the past few weeks, the same can’t be said for the defense as a whole. Defensive end Michael Bennett remains on the shelf, which should make offenses shudder. If Seattle can get completely healthy, there’s another level that this team has yet to reach.
Even as Dak Prescott and the Cowboys pile up points and Brady’s Patriots rack up wins, that idea is what makes the Seahawks the league’s most daunting challenge. No other roster boasts a combination that can rival Wilson and that defense. As long as both are at full strength, this season could look a lot like the past four — with the Seahawks rolling into January as the team to beat.
The Starting 11
A look at 11 big story lines, key developments, and interesting tidbits from this week in the NFL.
1. Dez Bryant is one hell of a third option. Facing Baltimore, the no. 1 run defense by DVOA, the Cowboys’ ground game wasn’t the type of planet-destroying force that it has been for much of this season. Offensive coordinator Scott Linehan’s response was to hammer the matchup between Bryant and backup cornerback Shareece Wright until the tiny crack in the Ravens defense turned into a gash big enough to sink it. Given the way that Prescott and Elliott have played for Dallas, it’s easy to forget that Bryant is more or less unstoppable when he’s right. He made that very clear in the Cowboys’ 27–17 win.
Three of Bryant’s most significant plays, including his third-quarter touchdown that involved him boxing out the cornerback for a jump ball near the left pylon, came in man coverage against Wright. Dallas seemed content to pick on him all afternoon, and Bryant finished with six catches for 80 yards and two scores.
The path that the Cowboys took to 27 points (and another win) is a devastating sight for defenses around the league. Even after robbing Dallas of what it does best, Baltimore still didn’t have the personnel to keep the Cowboys down. And if the Ravens and their league-best run defense couldn’t do it, I’m not sure who can.
2. Jared Goff’s debut was a whole lot of meh. The Rams’ game plan against the Dolphins — a ton of short, quick throws — was designed to limit Goff’s impact, and facing one of the league’s hottest defenses in a driving rain, it’s tough to make much of his first showing. The no. 1 overall pick avoided any backbreaking mistakes in a 14–10 loss, but he averaged just 4.3 yards per attempt. There will be better weeks to evaluate him, but it’s fair to say that Sunday could have gone worse.
3. Miami continues to win ugly and is still very much alive in the playoff hunt. Even by the Dolphins’ recent standards, going scoreless for nearly 56 minutes against the Rams is pretty brutal. Miami’s injuries along the offensive line only got worse in Sunday’s second quarter when left tackle Laremy Tunsil (playing in place of Branden Albert) left with a shoulder injury. With replacement Sam Young in the game, the Dolphins had to play with three backups (Young, left guard Kraig Urbik, and center Anthony Steen); Los Angeles’s Aaron Donald was happy to take advantage.
Only during Miami’s final two drives did the Rams’ front four relent, and that turned out to be enough for the Dolphins to steal a last-second win and get to 6–4. Wide receiver DeVante Parker was a monster down the stretch, hauling in five passes for 57 yards — including the game-winning touchdown — on the Dolphins’ final two possessions. Miami’s recipe of running Jay Ajayi and hitting a few big plays to a group of talented wideouts becomes even more potent if Parker can realize his endless potential, but that becomes tougher if the line doesn’t get healthy soon.
4. The Cardinals offense is a mess, but man is David Johnson fun. Here’s all anyone needs to know about Arizona’s dysfunction: In a game against Minnesota, the Cardinals were the team with the untenable offensive line. Already without left tackle Jared Veldheer and right guard Evan Mathis (both on the IR), Arizona lost left guard Mike Iupati for a short stretch on Sunday as well. The Vikings finished their 30–24 win with four sacks and 15 quarterback hits, which — considering Carson Palmer still has all of his limbs — seems impossible.
The only saving grace of the Cardinals offense (and of fantasy teams everywhere) is Johnson. With 160 yards from scrimmage in Week 11, Johnson became just the third player since the merger to have at least 100 in his team’s first 10 games. Edgerrin James, who did it twice, is also the only player to reach 11 in his team’s first 11 games. On a points-per-game basis, Johnson is having the 20th-best fantasy season for a running back since 1970.
Now at 197 rushing attempts on the fall, Johnson is getting plenty of work, but his production is about more than the Cards stuffing carries down his throat. His 4-yard receiving touchdown in Minnesota came on a nifty route from the slot that required him to beat a nickel corner inside. The guy can do everything, even if the Cardinals can’t do much of anything else.
5. Somehow, the Cowboys are the only team in the NFC with more wins than the Giants. After beating the Bears, 22–16, head coach Ben McAdoo’s team is 7–3 and in prime position for a wild-card berth. It’s hard to imagine a less inspiring playoff squad. While the Giants defense has been better than most people expected, Eli Manning and the passing game have struggled to find much of a rhythm, even against a Chicago team scraping the bottom of the barrel at cornerback. In a conference featuring Detroit and Minnesota (both fighting it out in what’s become a putrid NFC North), New York’s defense may be enough to get to the postseason, but the Giants shouldn’t scare anyone just yet.
6. A.J. Green’s hamstring tear likely means the end of his (and the Bengals’) season. Green reaching for the back of his leg was about the worst possible sight for a Cincinnati fan. With wideouts Mohamed Sanu and Marvin Jones leaving the Bengals in free agency (and with tight end Tyler Eifert hurt for the early part of this season), Green had taken on a larger role than ever in Cincy’s passing game. Sunday’s 16–12 loss to the Bills was the first glimpse of what this iteration of the Bengals would be like without him, and the result was unwatchable. Andy Dalton finished with 207 yards on 43 attempts and threw two interceptions. With Green hurt, it’s safe to say that the Bengals’ five-year stretch of consecutive playoff berths will come to an end.
7. Mike Tomlin continues to give zero fucks, and we’re all better for it. As time expired in the first half of the Steelers’ 24–9 victory in Cleveland, a defensive holding penalty against the Browns gave Pittsburgh an untimed down from the opposing 1-yard line. Rather than bowing to every “Take the points!” pundit alive, the Steelers head coach elected to go for the touchdown. If that wasn’t enough, another penalty call against Cleveland gave Tomlin a second shot at the same decision, and he went for it again, resulting in a Le’Veon Bell rushing score. Tomlin commits, and choices like that set him apart from nearly every other coach in the league.
Of course, Pittsburgh’s offense still underwhelmed against a defense that has regularly been torched, even if gusting 30 mph winds were partially responsible for grounding the Steelers’ passing game. Losses from the Ravens and Bengals have pulled the Steelers to within shouting distance of a playoff spot, but this group has to be more consistent if it hopes to emerge as the formidable playoff contender that many expect it to be.
8. We need to talk about the Chiefs offense. After another 17-point slog, this time in a 19–17 loss to Tampa Bay, it’s time to start worrying about head coach Andy Reid’s guys. Sunday was the fifth time this season and the third time in as many games that Kansas City has failed to crack 21 points. In years past, even when the Chiefs’ underneath offense couldn’t produce plays down the field, this unit was still ruthlessly efficient. That element has been missing in 2016, with the Chiefs ranking 22nd in DVOA through 10 weeks. Kansas City’s defense (now with more Justin Houston!) has enough talent to keep the team afloat, but the offense appears to be a serious problem for the first time in Reid’s tenure.
9. The Andrew Luck–T.Y. Hilton pairing is starting to become unfair. Hilton’s 2-yard touchdown catch in the second quarter of Sunday’s 24–17 win over Tennessee, on a play that involved him robbing Titans cornerback Perrish Cox of a ball in the end zone, was just the latest instance of Luck and Hilton showing off their telepathic connection. Those two drawing shit up in the dirt and making it work has formed the basis of the Colts offense, and it’s been among the most entertaining parts of this season. Watching them conjure huge gains out of nothing had me wondering whether Luck and Hilton would be the football equivalent of Karl Malone and John Stockton in a two-on-two, NBA Jam–type setting. Then I watched the Seahawks’ duo of Wilson and Graham.
10. No one in the league makes me exclaim “Oh my god” in a tone that’s half-horror and half-awe as often as the Packers’ Mike Daniels.
11. This week in NFL players, they’re absolutely nothing like us. Ezekiel Elliott continues to shatter every preconceived notion we have of the physical universe.